Macromedia Fireworks MX

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New interface, core Web navigation enhancements and advanced workflow features provide something for users at all levels.

Producing the HTML framework for your web pages is the job of a program like Dreamweaver MX but to make them stand out from the crowd you need to give them some graphical panache. This is where Fireworks comes in combining vector-based control, bitmap-based creativity, top-of-the-range image optimization and advanced coding and integration to help give your pages some design impact.

The first thing that strikes about this latest version is that it has been given the full MX make-over. All the previous floating palettes have been rationalized as panels that can be grouped and docked in the docking area down the right hand of the screen. An even more welcome change is the introduction of the new context-sensitive Properties panel at the bottom of the screen which has cut out the need for a whole swathe of former palettes such as Effects, Fill and Stroke. It wasn't bad in the past, but suddenly the Fireworks' environment seems far more productive.

Other interface enhancements include a new Zoom tool that is no longer limited to fix zoom levels and a revamp that splits the Toolbox into clearly marked vector and bitmap tools - though much of Fireworks' strength still comes from its ability to seamlessly mix the two technologies, for example to draw a charcoal-style brush stroke that can then be redrawn and given a new watercolour effect. Under the Toolbox's bitmap section you'll also find five new options - Blur, Sharpen, Burn, Dodge and Smudge - for applying local photo retouching. There's also a new interactive Gradient tool which can be used with bitmaps, vectors or text.

The Text tool has been given some much-needed new power. In particular you can finally type and edit your text directly on the image rather than in a semi-detached dialog. When working like this, control over typeface, point-size and so on, is most efficiently handled in the Properties panel though the dedicated Text Editor is still there if required. Also new is the ability to spell-check text and to import and export Photoshop PSD files complete with editable text layers. A feature I've not seen before is the ability to store a cached image of a file's fonts so that you can still work on your file on different systems and platforms.

Fireworks MX's new interface and on-canvas text editing seriously boost productivity.

Fireworks' primary function is to produce the navigational framework for your site and so its most common task is producing buttons. Here Fireworks MX has learnt from Flash with its new support for Symbols and Instance Level properties. This sounds intimidating but what it means in practice is that you can create multiple copies of a button and maintain their links to an updatable master while independently changing their text and URLs - ideal for creating and controlling navigation bars.

The creation of core Web navigation devices has been enhanced.

More sophisticated navigation comes in the form of Fireworks' support for pop-up menus. The Pop-Up Menu Editor wizard now offers much greater control over appearance with the ability to specify spacing, borders and colour shading. You can also now create horizontal pop-ups and all menus can be edited natively in Dreamweaver MX.

Not surprisingly Fireworks MX's favoured target applications are Macromedia's own and, using the new Quick Export Button, you have fast access to output tailored for Dreamweaver, Flash, FreeHand and Director. The integration with Dreamweaver MX is especially tight and this has been extended to include support for accessibility features and XMTHL. Again though, Macromedia deserves credit for supporting alternative standards such as GoLive and FrontPage. If you use the latter you can directly launch and edit an originating Fireworks PNG and, when you save your changes, Fireworks will automatically update all image slices and the code necessary to make them function.

Creating slice table layouts in this way is a regular task in Fireworks MX as it enables the use of different optimisation settings and the creation of rollovers. Fireworks' Roundtrip Table Editing makes such tables much easier to handle but the big danger is that, if you lose your original file, you'll be unable to update the image table without starting again from scratch. Not any more. Using the new Reconstitute command you can point to any HTML file containing image slices and Fireworks MX instantly builds a new source file. It's not just the main image that is reconstituted, Macromedia's JavaScript behaviours and rollover states are automatically attached to the appropriate slices!

The Reconstitute command could instantly save you hours of work - but it's unlikely to be used often. The new ability to create data-driven graphics on the other hand could regularly save you time, money and wasted effort. Much of web imaging work is by its nature repetitive, for example creating dozens of similar buttons or hundreds of eye-catching titles. Now you can mark up text and image slices as variables in your layout and then, using the new Data-Driven Graphics Wizard, associate them with fields in an XML-based data source, select the records to process, set up export settings and then batch process them.

Data-driven graphics production could lead to semi-automatic Web imaging workflows.

Features like data-driven graphics enhance Fireworks MX's high-end workflow credentials, but it's the changes to the interface and core text and button handling that ensure that all users will benefit from this latest release.

Tom Arah

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System requirements: Pentium II 300MHz, Windows 98SE, Me, NT4 (SP6), 2000 or XP, 128MB of RAM, 80MB of hard disk space, 800x600 monitor, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

July 2002

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